Microsoft Research showed during the 12th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) that medical researchers can use machine-learning, data-mining and other software techniques to comb through millions of strains of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to find the genetic patterns necessary to train a patient's immune system to fight the virus.
The first of these vaccine designs are currently undergoing laboratory testing. The advanced software is said to be typically used to analyse large computer databases and complex digital images, or to separate spam from legitimate e-mail.
Researchers David Heckerman and Nebojsa Jojic are the first to use algorithms similar to those in Microsoft's database and anti-spam software to uncover hidden patterns within the genetic mutations of the virus and the immune system of the patient.
The researchers, in collaboration with doctors and scientists from the University of Washington (UW) and Australia's Royal Perth Hospital, plan to exploit these patterns to create improved vaccine designs that pack more HIV-fighting genetic markers into vaccines.
Simon Mallal, professor and executive director of the Centre for Clinical Immunology and Biomedical Statistics at Royal Perth Hospital and Murdoch University, said the research has enabled them to filter patient data 10 times faster than any previous research technique used.
He added that they were also able to produce vital clues about the building blocks of a vaccine, "clues that were all but impossible to find in our growing stockpile of medical data."
Mallal said human testing for the vaccine designs was still a long way off. However, the initial findings will help point them in the right direction.
"An analogy I've used is that it's like trying to land a man on the moon. It is a huge challenge to identify an effective vaccine and it is necessary to provide different strategies. It is still some time off but what we've achieved so far is certainly a very important step," Mallal said.
Researchers in Perth have been working on the vaccine for 4 to 5 years and have collaborated with Microsoft in the last year.
The vaccine designs are currently undergoing laboratory testing at the University of Washington. The tests are being conducted on samples of immune cells taken from HIV-infected patients to determine how effectively the models uncover the appropriate genetic patterns.
Similar tests are planned at the Royal Perth Hospital in Australia with the initial results expected later this year.
Researchers plan to use the same techniques to analyse HIV strains from different parts of the world to gain a global understanding of vaccine components in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take. The new vaccine models may also help in the development of treatments for hepatitis C and other mutating viruses.
"Science is changing rapidly with the explosion of new data, and we've only scratched the surface of what computers can do to help advance this kind of research," said Heckerman.